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The great return of night trains

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At first widely used and then strongly neglected in the 2010s, night trains have been making a comeback in environmental debates for a few years. A comeback that echoes the rise of Flygskam, the shame of taking the plane. A phenomenon that appeared in 2018 in Sweden, that is gradually spreading in the West. The idea is to reduce the use of airplanes (especially for domestic flights) in favour of more ecological modes of transport, such as the train, which is proving to be a very good alternative for long journeys. This comeback is illustrated by the great mobilization of the “Yes to the night train” collective and its petition which has already collected nearly 201,500 signatures. Zoom on this not so backward return.

The long history of night trains

One of the first and most mythical night train is the Orient-Express which launched its first departure in 1883. Place of many fictions, its last trip was operated in 2007. Until 1981, night trains developed strongly in France with nearly 550 stations being served. However, that year, the high-speed train appeared and completely changed the way mobility within the territory was consumed, by greatly reducing travel time.

With this comes the increase in the use of air travel for domestic and international travel, cheap and fast, which is attracting more and more passengers. But this is not the only reason. The decline of the night train is accelerated by the decrease in investment in the secondary network and the ageing of the equipment. To justify the abandonment of these night lines, the Secretary of State for Transport, Alain Vidalies, stated in 2016 that “each night train ticket sold requires more than 100 euros of public subsidy on average.” The government stopped subsidizing the last six lines in 2016. From 550 stations served in 1981, only five will remain in 2020. These wiped-out lines are causing anger in medium-sized cities, which are not served by the TGV.

More and more investments

While all Western European countries were abandoning night trains, Austria went in the opposite direction. In 2016, it took the gamble of relaunching European lines. With an investment of 40 million euros, the national operator ÖBB (Österreichische Bundesbahnen) bought back some of the cars abandoned by the German company Deutsche Bahn. The gamble paid off, as the company claims to have been profitable with its Nightjet service since its first year of operation. Although this activity remains a niche activity for the company, with 1.4 million passengers transported, it seems to attract more and more ecologically conscious passengers. For the time being, the company markets nearly 26 routes serving several European countries: Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Croatia and Poland.

night trains map

Undoubtedly encouraged by the success of the Austrian gamble, the SNCF intends to reopen the Paris-Nice and Paris-Tarbes-Hendaye lines by 2022, investing 100 million euros in the introduction of new, more modern trains with more comfortable berths.

But France, like many of its neighboring countries, is counting on a European alliance to fully revive its night train business. This has been achieved with a partnership signed between the Austrian (ÖBB), German (Deutsche Bahn), Swiss (CFF) and French (SNCF) rail operators. These trains, which will be operated under the brand name Nightjet, will be launched at the end of 2021 with the opening of new lines:

  • December 2021: Paris-Vienna via Munich, Zurich-Amsterdam via Cologne;
  • December 2022: Zurich-Rome via Milan;
  • December 2023: Paris-Berlin via Strasbourg, Berlin-Brussels;
  • December 2024: Zurich-Barcelona

A more ecological alternative to air travel

While the European Union is committed to reducing its greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55%, the excessive use of airplanes on short and medium distance trips seems to be too polluting. In fact, according to several studies, using night trains emits 30x less CO2 than travelling by plane on the same route. Other data, for a plane, we count between 190 and 215 g of CO2 emitted per km, an impressive figure next to the trains which emit only between 5 and 45 g of CO2 per km.

While the majority of passengers would use night trains for entertainment and tourism, the choice of greener mobility goes hand in hand with the growing feeling of Flygskam (the shame of flying).

According to the “Yes to Night Trains” collective, by building 30 new lines, including 15 intra-European lines, we could avoid nearly 1.9 million tons of CO2 per year by transporting nearly 10 million passengers annually. Beyond the obvious ecological benefit, night trains would also allow to reconnect the territories of “peripheral France”, not served by TGV stations and cruelly lacking alternative means of transport to move around the whole territory.

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